Opinion |

Constant, Unchecked, Dangerous Antisemitism: Why British Jews Are Boycotting Twitter

When it comes to racists and antisemites, the social media giants seem to think there are good people on both sides. This is how we’re fighting back against their inaction

Nicole Lampert
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Call from the #NoSafeSpaceForJewHate campaign to boycott Twitter for 48 hours
Call from the #NoSafeSpaceForJewHate campaign to boycott Twitter for 48 hoursCredit: Twitter
Nicole Lampert

AS a self-professed noisy Jew, I don’t like being told to shut up. Not talking about antisemitism has never, ever, made it go away.

So when fellow British Jewish antisemitism campaigners announced a plan to stay silent on Twitter and Instagram for 48 hours, in protest at unabated anti-Jewish tweets by a well-known musician, and by Twitter’s inaction, I baulked. Like many other Jews I wondered why we should be the ones forced to leave.

Sure, Wiley, considered the godfather of grime and boasting 500,000 followers on both Twitter and Instagram (around twice the number of Jews in Britain) had gone above and beyond most public antisemitism I had seen, even on that sewer of a social media site.

One of grime musician Wiley's retweets (eventually deleted by Twitter) calling 'fucking' Jews 'the most vile people in the history of humanity,' parasites and ridiculing the HolocaustCredit: Twitter

In general, the most egregious examples of hate have tended to come from anonymous accounts. British celebrities are usually more subtle in their antisemitism – such as actress Maxine Peake who amplified the conspiracy theory that Israeli "secret forces" had taught U.S. cops the techniques used to kill George Floyd; she later "clarified" the factual inaccuracy of her allegation.

Wiley – merging classic antisemitic tropes with the teachings of the Nation of Islam and Black Hebrew Israelites to create a deluge of hatred - didn’t just go on and on with his diatribes about how Jews are "snakes" who are "at war" with Black people. He also said Jews were like the KKK, want Blacks “back in the cotton field” and that we should "hold some corn" – according to some, slang for being shot – before adding, "Jewish community you deserve it."

One of grime musician Wiley's tweets (eventually deleted by Twitter) comparing Jews and the KKKCredit: Twitter

But it was the way social media responded which caused the fury. Thousands complained about the tweets but they remained up for 12 hours – being retweeted and echoed by his many, many fans. Some were eventually, selectively taken down – but he carried on tweeting more hate.

Subsequently banned for just a few hours, Wiley immediately went on to Instagram where he continued abusive diatribes, an orgy of hate with audio and visuals of every antisemitic trope you’ve ever heard of.

It was only when the police announced they were investigating his hate speech that, finally, he was banned by both sites. But only for seven days.

Twitter’s own anti-hate guidelines declare it will not accept the promotion of "violence against, or directly attacking or threatening, people based on race, ethnicity, national origin, caste, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religion, age, disability or serious disease." The gap between policy and practice was both glaring and offensive.

It was actress Tracy-Ann Oberman who decided enough was enough. A former star of one of the UK’s biggest soaps, EastEnders, and of Channel 4 comedy Friday Night Dinner, she’s long been one of the most outspoken voices on Twitter against antisemitism. British Jews have, over the last few years, faced a particular challenge with the rise of left-wing antisemitism. It has meant we have seen a lot of hate, and we have got pretty good at fighting it.

Tracy-Ann, who started the campaign with veteran activist Saul Freeman, says it was the way Twitter and Instagram refused for so long to take off Wiley’s dangerous and offensive messages that meant she felt more had to be done then the usual online rows which, like a rock being thrown into a pond, cause a few ripples before vanishing.

"Watching, for 48 hours, all the hatred pouring out of Wiley without anyone from either platform stepping in was just shocking," she told me. "By refusing to act on his race hate they gave him a megaphone to preach his views – that we are slippery creatures who live under rocks and control the world – to his 500,000 followers, many of whom agreed with him.

Grime music artist Wiley: British Police are investigating after he posted a stream of anti-Semitic comments on Instagram and Twitter. Oct. 18, 2017.Credit: Ian West,AP

"I consider myself an advocate for free speech. If there were no rules about what you can say on Twitter and Instagram, people could be free to post what they want. But both these sites, Twitter and Instagram, have guidelines about removing hate speech; why bother having them if they don’t stick to them? Antisemitism and all sorts of racism have been allowed to flourish for too long."

And so the campaign #NoSafeSpaceForJewHate (which trended for two days in the UK, in Israel and America) was born.

After the 48-hour boycott was announced, there were many grumblings. Not only were people worried about leaving social media to the racists, but there were other concerns when it came to race. Some Black Jews wondered why it was only when a Black man had spoken that the fuss over antisemitism became so loud. Other minorities asked why Jews were making all the fuss when racists are awful to everyone.

But it was never only about Wiley; it is about how social media companies behave.

Social media companies are failing themselves and their audiences in dealing with incitement and hate from whichever part of the political spectrum they raise their ugly heads.

Far right agitator Katie Hopkins with her one million followers was finally thrown off Twitter just last month after a year-long campaign to ban her, only to show up on Instagram. Hate preacher Louis Farrakhan, Ice Cube’s antisemitic rants, conspiracy theorist David Icke, far right figure David Duke and many, many anonymous users fill the sites with posts attacking minorities.

Jews have always been noisy about intolerance. White Jews have used our white (ish) privilege: we were never told to use the staff entrance of hotels like our Black friends, but at the same time we were never fully accepted by white people either. In South Africa and segregated America, Jews helped in the fight against oppression. Our perennial outsider status has sensitized us to push for change for the better.

Hopefully this time will be the same. We are speaking out about antisemitism, but we hope this will set a precedent for targets of all racist abuse. It must. The reluctance of social media companies to enforce their own anti-hate rules is a searing issue for every minority group.

The constant stream of race hate on social media signals to minorities: If you’re here, you’re on your own. The message from social media chiefs is: We won’t get involved. There are good people on both sides.

"What is tragic is that it takes someone like me to try and make a difference," Tracy-Ann, who has been left stunned by the momentum her small campaign has picked up, tells me. "Where were the grown ups?"

Already the campaign has been backed by more than 70 British politicians from across the political spectrum – including several Corbyn supporters who, until recently, were at loggerheads with most British Jews. It’s been featured in newspapers and backed by celebrities from across the globe – from Black British singer Beverley Knight, to historian Simon Schama, from Superman actor Dean Cain to Muslim activist Maajid Nawaz, comic Dawn French to footballer Gary Lineker.

The Labour Party (now "under new management," in leader Keir Starmer’s words) has voiced support and demanded Government action. UK Home Secretary Priti Patel has also finally promised to put pressure on social media companies to do more to stamp out hate. Meanwhile, thousands of others of every ethnic background and religion have silently – using the ubiquitous hashtag – absented themselves.

So far there have been few real promises from the social media giants. Will they respond to a grassroots campaign? The people (their customers) have spoken by disengaging from their business. Without users they are an empty shell. Do they want to be known as a sanctuary for Jew-baiters and racists?

It turns out that sometimes being quiet is the noisiest thing we Jews can do.

Nicole Lampert is a London-based journalist who has written for the Daily Mail, The Spectator, The Independent and The Sun. Twitter: @nicolelampert

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